Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book review: The dirty life by Kristin Kimball

Another name for this memoir, The Dirty Life by Kristen Kimball, could have been The inconvenient life or The unexpected happiness in a ditch or under a cow belly.  Kristin Kimball is a New York City journalist when she shows up at an organic farm in Pennsylvania to interview the youngish farmer, Mark.  He was too busy running the farm so he put her to work, weeding, to begin with. During the second day she finally managed to get some answers to her questions, and by then she also had her old interest in farming come alive again (she was always interested in food).  

This book describes the development of her passion for farming, and first her relationship and then marriage with Mark, who is a somewhat crazy hippie-like man.  She is brutally honest, funny, and writes eloquently about everything from her mom's appalled face when Mark shows up with a newly slaughtered turkey in a plastic bag (with the neck hanging out) at their first Thanksgiving, to the feeling of warm, good soil that is just waiting for the spade and shovels and plows.

They move away from New York, trying to find some land to farm organically and 'completely', in the sense that they want to be a self-sustained farm that produces everything a family might need year round: grain, sugar (maple syrup and honey), vegetables, milk (and cheese and yogurt), pork, chicken and eggs, beef, sheep for lamb, and so on. That is a lot complex than to farm just one thing (milk cows or corn for example), but also much more rewarding.

They find some land they are allowed to lease in upper New York State and start Essex Farm.  Mark is a true back-to-old-times person, hating any kind of plastic and waste of resources.  They decide to try to do as little as possible with tractors and instead they buy two draft horses, which will help them to plow and weed and transport manure and maple syrup buckets around, you name it. There is a great interview with Kimball here.

The first year they work all the time, live on nearly nothing except on what they can grow and are worried because they are not sure that the neighbors are willing to become members and get everything they need from the farm instead of from the regular grocery store.  But, if you build it they will come. The neighbors, many of them retired farmers from farms that now are abandoned, help them out with sage advice, ancient rusty but important draft horse equipment from old barns, and a hand here and there when needed.  And they start to sign up as members to get part of what is produced at the farm.

Today, 7 years later, the farm has over 100 members and is thriving.  Kristin Kimball wrote her book on early mornings between 4 and 7 in the fire station, before her daughter woke up and the work at the farm started.  I really loved this book, and read it faster than most because it captures you.  Not only is the story both compelling (and sometimes disgusting) and interesting, Kimball's way with words is beautiful, often poetic.  But mixed with a great sense of humor - she never takes herself too seriously, but she also can be very serious at times.

I am not ready to become a farmer with draft horses after this book, but I sure would love to have a farm like this close-by to get great, real, local, handmade food from.  I am so glad Kimball wrote this book because I hope it will inspire both young people to become farmers and conscious eaters and 'cookers', as well as all of us to think about what it is that we really need in our lives.  Flat screen TVs and the latest world news don't seem that important after you have read this book.  A bunch of hay and a sunset and a well-cooked meal is more real.  So, read it.  It is one of the top ten books I have read in 5 years, and I mean it.  So, grade A+, 5, or *****.

[Disclosure: I did not get paid to say anything of this. :)  Better put this in here so I am not like those corrupt and greedy economy professors in the movie Inside Job, which I recommend the whole world to see, but more on that later.]

Some excerpts:
"A farm is a manipulative creature.  There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can't, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die.  It's blackmail, really."

About preparing bull testicles for dinner after a slaughter:
"I peeled off a layer of membrane only to find another layer. Maybe a testicle is like an onion, I thought, and if I keep peeling I will end up with nothing.  So I left some of the white and squiggly purple stuff on until I got to slicing them into rounds and discovered that the true interior of a testicle is light brown in color, with a fine granular texture - more prairie uni than prairie oyster, if you ask me.  I tossed the slices in seasoned flour and pan-fried them in butter, and served them for breakfast along with scrambled eggs and toast.  The taste was interesting, not too far from a very fresh sea scallop, which the slices resembled in shape and size."

"My existence, from daybreak to dark, became focused on the assassination of weeds. Before that first year, I'd filed "agriculture," in the card catalog of my head, in the same general place as "nature." As in many things, I was so wrong. Farming, I discovered, is a great and ongoing war."

"It was September, deep harvest season, days of pulling carrots, pulling beets, stacking hundred-pound bags int he root cellars.  Mark scythed the rows of black beans and kidney beans, dry and hard in their brittle pods, and I forked them, stems and all, onto the wagon, which the horses drew slowly down the row."

"The food at harvest season is so right the less is done to it, the better.  Sunday dinners were exercises in simplicity. Green salad, practically naked. Steamed green beans with butter. Beets roasted in a hot oven, sliced and tossed with a whisper of oil, a suggestion of vinegar, a bit of dill on top."


PP said...

I guess its good I recc. this book to you! And thanks to your review I really don't even need to read it!

LS said...

Hmm, maybe I should write shorter reviews :), so you don't find out what happens in the books. Thanks for recommending it too!

EH said...

Great review LS. I really would like to read this book.

Sarah said...

I think I will make a point of reading that book this year!